We must rout the residual prime evil of our primeval world

Violence against females is rooted in our brutal past, but such acts are neither biologically nor culturally immutable, says David Roberts

April 3, 2008

Women have been in the news recently, but it didn't make pleasant reading. Although the Indian Government announced policies to counter infanticide and the UK declared an increase in the number of special courts to deal with the abnormally low rate of convictions for domestic violence, there was little else to lift the spirits.

Around the world, discussions raged about women's clothing, from miniskirts to burkas, underscoring how individual female preferences are a matter of public debate. We were reminded that about one in four women in England recently affirmed that it was partly or wholly a woman's fault if she were raped while wearing so-called provocative clothing.

Staying in England, where women hold about one fifth of parliamentary seats, roughly half the number that women hold in Rwanda, those who challenged the abduction of girls into forced marriages were undermined by accusations that they might be racist and/or culturally inappropriate. And revealing the persistence of gender inequality globally, ActionAid reported that policies aimed at reducing poverty were (again) leaving women and girls behind. These inequalities would have made Pol Pot blush, but one social commentator claimed that there was nothing left for women to march for. And therein lies a problem: the perception that women have achieved enough equality holds sway in much of Europe.

But the battle is far from over. The acts of violence that have been reported are structural and institutional; they are not disconnected but are related and reflect control regimes that may originate in our deep pasts.

Looking at "honour" killing and dowry burnings in Asia, as well as familial beatings in the US and the UK, reveals their use as control mechanisms by men and women against (mostly) women who behaved in some way against apparently "normal" social practices. Males have attempted to assert control of females' social and sexual behaviour and have employed women to legitimate and carry out brutal punishment for any perceived aberration. Many women, and men, think that beating a woman who disobeys a man or killing a woman whose socially constructed "honour" has been besmirched (and so besmirched a man's masculinity) is acceptable.

That women co-operate in the beating of other women reflects a social control process that derives from an older evolutionary need to perpetuate a biological line when populations were scarce and maternal fidelity genetically important. That women are involved in punishing women is often used by men to legitimate such control processes, but their co-operation does not make the codes legitimate. It means women and men have been equally deeply socialised in the "right" and "need" to punish women for social "deviation".

The conditions that structured this behaviour have diminished in the West. We have tamed our environment and, as geneticist Steve Jones says, we have Tesco now, so we don't need to go out slaying wildlife. And we no longer need to sanctify our genes for the survival of the species. But the social codes and associated behaviours persist. This ensures that women are still viciously subjugated and punished by men directly and other women indirectly.

These acts of violence are neither culturally defensible nor biologically fixed. Instead, the extent and variety of such acts illustrates the social extension of outdated and changing bio-environmental determinism. This shows how male and female behaviours are socially constructed and reinforced over time when the environment that drove such practices is long extinct. Unfortunately, the rules that facilitated our management of that ancient and brutal primeval world have been so deeply habituated, socialised and institutionalised that they have taken on the patina of normality. The good news is that because such behaviour is socially maintained, it can be socially reorganised.

The structures that created and maintain inequality have not been removed. For millions of women, the impact of pioneering feminism has yet to be realised. There is no place on Earth where women are not sexually exploited and abused, or where their pay equals men's for the same job, or where they are free of private and judicial beatings. Women are still cash-cropped out of Asia and elsewhere for men's pleasure everywhere.

These issues are not disconnected and reflect structural power hierarchies. Most challenges to social hegemony have been at the periphery of our lives, rather than on the founding ideas that structure our existences. But this does not mean that they can't be changed. They are maintained through social construction and endorsement, but they are not inviolable. They have changed over time incrementally, and can be reconstructed if their explanations can be wrenched from the perceived immutability of biological determinism and relocated in the domain of the global social.

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